Leon F. Blosser
In the July 1898 issue of the Presbyterian Quarterly, an article appeared under the title Some Perils of Missionary Life. It was the text of an address given by Dr. B. B. Warfield to ‘a body of prospective missionaries’. In his address Warfield comments on five distinct perils that attend mission work. Failure to recognize any one of them usually proves fatal to the missionary and to the church as well.
Among those perils cited are the dangers of the missionary himself being converted to the religion of his hearers, and the possibility ‘that in striving to commend Christianity to the heathen and to remove their stubborn and abounding difficulties in accepting it, we really accommodate Christianity to heathen thought – in a word, we simply explain Christianity away’. Warfield continues:
I have met more than one missionary from Mohammedan lands, for example, who had learned to state the doctrine of the Trinity ‘so genially and so winningly’ (as they express it), that it roused little or no opposition in the Mohammedan mind. And when I heard how they state it, I did not wonder; they had so stated it as to leave the idea of the Trinity out. The method of conversion by concession is really, at bottom, an attempt to deceive men into a profession of Christianity; to make them believe that Christianity is not what it appears to be, and does not involve in its profession all that it seems; that it is much ‘easier to take’ than men have been accustomed to think.
Dr. Warfield’s remarks are as timely today as they were when he spoke them over eighty years ago. There are ominous signs that the movement which we have come to know as contextualization is in danger of succumbing to the dangers just cited.
The movement in its current form first gained impetus among evangelicals at the Lausanne Congress of World Evangelism in 1974. The theme of that congress was ‘Gospel and Culture’. In January 1978 thirty-three men who were either signatories of The Lausanne Covenant or committed to its framework met at Willowbank, Somerset Bridge, Bermuda, to carry forward the work begun at Lausanne. The papers read at the Lausanne Congress and the Willowbank Report were published in 1980.
At issue is the question, “How can I, who was born and brought up in one culture, take truth out of the Bible which was addressed to people in a second culture, and communicate it to people who belong to a third culture, without either falsifying the message or rendering it unintelligible? . . . and then when the message has been understood and received . . . how should they (i.e. the recipients) relate to their own culture in their conversion . . . ethical lifestyle, and . . . church life?’ ‘Contextualization’ was coined to embody the answers to these questions.
Statements intended to safeguard the movement were incorporated into the Willowbank report. The dangers of syncretism were noted; acknowledgement of the authority and inspiration of the Bible was also made. How, then, can it be said that we are in any great danger?
A clue is found in the attempt of the contextualization movement to equate the task of Bible translation with the work of cross-cultural evangelism. The Willowbank Report states in Section 8b, ‘Just as a “dynamic equivalence” translation . . . seeks to convey to contemporary readers meanings equivalent to those conveyed to the original readers, by using appropriate cultural forms, so would a “dynamic equivalence” church.’
In the application of this principle, proponents of contextualization have proceeded to treat divinely appointed aspects of the church on the same level as incidental and cultural forms which merely give personality to a local congregation. We shall see this clearly at another point in our discussion. For the moment, however, let us be clear that there is a vast difference between deciding to drop or alter the Trinitarian formula in baptism or redefine or eliminate the sacrament of the Lord’s table, and considering whether or not the congregation should sit on the floor or on benches, sing eastern or western tunes, or use a particular form of architecture in building a place of worship!
Therefore, it is fallacious to assume there is always a direct analogy between dynamic equivalency in translation and contextualization in evangelism. Rather, there is a continuum from a point of no analogy to a point of complete identity.
A missionary who learns the language of his hearers but chooses to adopt as few of their customs as possible is at the one end of the continuum. He who tries to adopt not only the language but the dress, customs, and total lifestyle of his hearers is at the other end of the continuum. At the mid-point between these two we find the missionary who, in mastering the language, strives to selectively adopt customs and elements of lifestyle into which can be poured content consistent with a Christian world view. Since all culture is expression of belief, adaption to, or adoption of many cultural elements may well be prohibitive. However, mastery of language is of supreme importance and must be attained if the Gospel is to be understood, translated and communicated cross-culturally.
In translation, a dynamic equivalent has as its ultimate goal a ‘rendering that means what the original means, both in denotation and connotation’. In other words, the object of Bible translation work is to communicate specific content in thought from one language to another, and that content is theological and propositional by the very nature of the case. (For example: “In the beginning God created; I am God, and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come; Anyone who comes to God must believe that He exists; I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me; There is one God and one mediator between God and man . . .” etc.)
Conversely, we may say that Bible translation is not an attempt to accommodate the Scriptures to what in the recipient language appears to suggest a religious idea approximating to the original.
The object is not to stimulate men to think their own thoughts about God in addition to what others have thought about him in cultures reflected in Scripture. (cf: Isaiah 45:7, ‘I do these things’ – that is, I, the Lord, and not the dualistic forces of Zoroaster’s teaching, Cyrus!) Rather, man is directed, as Cornelius Van Till has pointed out, to think God’s thoughts after him. He is to ‘forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts’ and to ‘turn to the Lord’. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord’. Similarly, great care must be taken in translating the Gospel into other languages so as not to dilute it and/or remove all that may offend or be difficult to comprehend in a different culture.
Therefore, the Reformed tradition has always laid a strong emphasis upon (1) an educated ministry with training in the Biblical languages and, (2) expository preaching, because the noetic effect of sin upon man makes it so easy to convey error to our hearers or readers.
The starting point for communicating God’s interpretation of reality to man is found in the unchangeable God who has revealed his truth in history in human language for man in all ages and cultures. Man is created in God’s image and, therefore, among other things he has a mind and a facility for communication pretuned to deal with reality as it is. However, man also has a facility for decision-making which we call his will, and that will, since the Fall, has been preadjusted to force the mind to distort any knowledge of God which it receives. The will forces man’s communication centre to use language forms that detract from the glory of the creator and becloud the knowledge of God. ‘In all his thoughts there is no room for God.’ All non-Biblically oriented thought becomes an attempt to turn the truth of God into a lie. All non-Christian religion (or culture) at its best is an exercise in suppressing the knowledge of God. It is not neutral!
Now it has become apparent that in following the dynamic equivalent analogy which it has adopted from the field of translation, the contextualization movement has taken an entirely new direction. Charles Tabor’s assertion that faith precedes theology so that all systematic theology is culture-conditioned is most alarming. This has at once reduced the uniqueness of the content of Biblical revelation to the level of general revelation. Systematic theology has suddenly become an entirely relativistic discipline, and it is asserted that it ought to be disengaged from any attempt at cross-cultural communication of the Scripture. After all, systematic theology is only a collection of cultural expressions that reflect what men think the Bible ought to say!
Alas! ‘What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.’
In 1905 Geerhardus Vos delivered an address at Princeton which examined the forces which at that time were influencing people ‘to ask themselves whether it may not after all be possible to escape from the wear and tear of endless controversies by construing a Christianity which shall be independent of the facts of history’. Vos says that the leading force was not historical criticism’s ferocious attacks on the validity of Scripture. ‘Equal, if not more influence must be attributed to the dislike of dogma and theology which is so widespread in our days. The present religious mind has a veritable dread of everything that is not immediately practical or experimental’. This latter influence, Vos points out, is Adolph Harnack’s legacy to the church. Harnack (1851-1930) taught that Christianity should be practical and therefore theological elements must be kept to a minimum.
In commenting upon Mr. Taber’s position paper referred to above, Carl Henry had this to say. ‘After stripping theology of any right to speak transculturally, Taber as an anthropologist seems on numerous occasions in his paper to take to himself the very prerogative he disallows the theologians. He presumes to tell us what is the case with theology and hermeneutics in all cultures. And it is not without significance that he salutes Harnack in insisting on the transitional significance of doctrinal affirmations. To say these foundations arose in a specific cultural context is one thing, to suggest they have no fixed cognitive import in the form of divine truth is quite another, and a viewpoint that the evangelical community properly rejects.’ Unfortunately, however, what has been written since the Willowbank Report with its rather weak safeguard does not reflect the perception of Dr. Henry. Instead, it appears that the evangelical community has decided to endorse, embrace and develop contextualization as defined by Mr. Taber. Although we are assured by Taber that ‘to relativize is not to destroy it is becoming alarmingly clear that exactly the opposite is the case.
In a recent book, ISLAM – A SURVEY OF THE MUSLIM FAITH (Baker Book House), co-authored by George Fry and James King we see a complete reversal of opinion – at least on Mr. Fry’s part – from evangelicalism to relativism. In that reversal of opinion Mr. Fry has moved to a position so sympathetic to Islam that it is dangerously close to the syncretism of Arnold Toynbee (whom Fry quotes on page 39). Toynbee suggested that to resolve the conflict between Christianity and other religions the ‘non-Christian chaff’ (i.e. theology) must be winnowed from the wheat of Christianity. This includes the claim to the uniqueness of Christ and the scriptures. Mr. Taber’s assurances notwithstanding, to relativize does indeed destroy!
In 1963 Mr. Fry wrote,
From its inception, therefore, Islam has been Christianity’s most dangerous doctrinal challenge. It offers ‘another Christ’, ‘another gospel’, another way of salvation. With a peculiar Christology, a divergent revelation, and an alternative presentation of the prophetic succession, Islam holds up to the world an interpretation of holy history and the life of Christ radically different from that reported in the Scriptures. For this reason some of the medieval fathers regarded Islam as a Christian heresy. It was a doctrinal deviation similar to Arianism. Regardless of the merits of that position, the danger is obvious. Islam takes the principles, personalities, events, and promises of sacred history and revises and uses this familiar material in a manner foreign to the spirit and letter of primitive Christianity. This new synthesis is presented to the world as the pristine revelation of God. It is precisely at this point that Islam becomes Christianity’s greatest theological challenge, for it is the oldest and most widespread surviving revision of the Gospel.
However, in Islam – A Survey of the Muslim Faith we are introduced by Fry to a Kantian Theory of knowledge which creates a distinct division between the dimension of time and space and the dimension to which belong, according to the authors, ‘religion, theology, and inspiration of great men and women, literature . . . customs and rituals, various mystical experiences.’ We are told that ‘no understanding of Islam is possible without some appreciation of these issues’. In other words, to effectively preach the Gospel to Muslims we must begin with Kant’s theory of knowledge!
Where does this lead us in our understanding? First, the authors tell us that ‘all scholars seem agreed that there is no difference in meaning between the Islamic concept represented by “Allah”, the Christian concept represented by “God”, and the Hebrew concept of “Yahweh”. The view of God is the same among all so-called people of the Book’. This is in sharp contrast to Mr. Fry’s 1969 article. Moreover, it is alarming that such generalizations are made as ‘all scholars seem to agree’ when this is precisely the point of disagreement. Islam, in spite of all its monotheistic appearance is in reality pantheistic fatalism.
At another point it is suggested that there is a striking parallel between an illiterate prophet in Islam giving birth to the Arabic Word and the Virgin Mary giving birth to Christ the Word of God.
Such mental exercises are filled with danger. As a matter of fact any such analogies prove only the Satanic and counterfeit nature of Islam.
Now, lest our remarks appear unduly critical, or lest anyone feel that the trends we have noted are of no consequence, we must point out what are perhaps the most alarming statements of all which have been set forth by proponents of contextualization.
1. From The Willowbank Report, Section 5(e): ‘Although there are in Islam elements which are incompatible with the gospel, there are also elements with a degree of what has been called ‘convertibility’. For instance, our Christian understanding of God, expressed in Luther’s great cry related to justification, “Let God be God”, might well serve as an inclusive definition of Islam. The Islamic faith in divine unity, the emphasis on man’s obligation to render God a right worship, and the utter rejection of idolatry could also be regarded as being in line with God’s purpose for human life as revealed in Jesus Christ.’
Were Luther alive today, his response to this section of the Willowbank Report would undoubtedly be a mighty and thunderous, ‘Let God be God and not Allah!’ To assume that similar words refer to similar realities is to argue for the credence of Islam! The Allah of Islam is a non-entity. Worship in Islam is meritorious work. Man, according to Islam, is a moral tabula rasa, a Pelagian able-to-do-good, and the rejection of idolatry is merely legalistic form. Although the words might be convertible, the concepts which they convey are utterly foreign to Christianity.
2. From Phil Parshall, - veteran missionary – ‘In view of the fact that baptism is so misunderstood in Muslim lands, would it be feasible to construct a functional substitute for baptism that would retain the meaning, but change the form? This ceremony would take place upon one’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ. It would be preceded by a time of specific instruction concerning conversion and holiness. This very special service would be attended by believers who would pledge their love and loyalty to the new member of the body. Such a ceremony of initiation would retain the scriptural meaning of baptism and reduce offense to the onlooking Muslim community. The theological implications of such a departure from the universal biblical practice of water baptism should be thoroughly investigated. While not personally advocating such a position, I would be interested in seeing further research done in this general area.’
Proponents of contextualization trace the seeds of the movement to Richard Niebuhr and Eugene Nida. However, a suggestion as radical as Parshall has put forth in the name of evangelicalism is a radical departure from Nida who states, ‘Some missionaries . . . have not fully appreciated the revolutionary character of their ministry. Their desire to share with others has kept them from perceiving clearly the significance of Jesus’ words, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”, etc. [Matt 10:34-37]. One missionary was so appalled by the social consequences of a decision for Jesus Christ in the Mohammedan World that he said quite frankly that if a young lady in his school declared her intention to become a Christian he would plead with her not to do so. But missionary work is not truly Christian unless it implies a radical change, both for the individual and the society.’
It is quite forgivable if Parshall has missed Nida’s admonition, but it is deeply disturbing that he has spurned the clear teaching of our Lord and is now encouraging us to devise a more convenient rite than God’s appointed means of grace.
3. From veteran Professors George Fry and James King . . . ‘The posture of evangelicals is that the Christian mission is not to communicate a culture (usually Western), or a creed, or a church, or a moral code and commandments, or customs. Rather, dialogue-witness for them is to share a person, Jesus Christ, who has been for them a transforming power and a Saviour-Friend. What the consequences of Christ will be for Muslims, in terms of their culture, creed, mosques, code, commandments, and customs, evangelicals do not pretend to know. There have been spontaneous Jesus Muslim movements in both Anatolia and West Africa; but no Westerner knows, or can even pretend to know, what the person and power of Jesus will mean for Muslims.’
One must certainly ask what remains of the Biblical Gospel if we are not allowed to communicate beliefs, the moral law of God, or commandments. It is a pity the Apostle John was so uninformed when he wrote in his first epistle that the love of God is known and defined through obedience to his commands [1 John 5:2, 3].
The Jesus Muslim movement, like a similar movement among some Jewish folk, ignores the theological content of Biblical terms by replacing it with whatever cultural or tradition-oriented meanings one may wish to impose. If Fry and King are correct in stating that no evangelical knows or can pretend to know ‘what the consequences of Christ will be for the Muslims, in terms of their culture, creed, mosques, codes, commandments’. . . one wonders what distinguishes evangelicals from liberals!
The time has come to sound an alarm that will alert pastors and missionaries to the dangers inherent in the contextualization movement. Let us return to the faith once delivered to the saints and continue as that great apostle to Islam, Samuel Zwemer, admonished us. ‘Preach to the Moslem, not as a Moslem, but as a man . . . as a sinner in need of a Saviour.’
This article first appeared in the February 1982 issue of The Banner of Truth magazine, published by The Banner of Truth Trust, 3 Murrayfield Road, Edinburgh EH12 6EL U.K. and is re-published here by permission and with our thanks to the Trust. Please visit their website at http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/home.php
Leon Blosser is a native of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and a graduate of Elizabethtown College (BA) and Reformed Episcopal Seminary (BD). He and his wife, Margaret are parents of four children. They lived in the Middle East from 1964 through 1976 and from 1990 through 2000. Mr. Blosser taught apologetics in Trinity Ministerial Academy, and served as Associate Pastor and Headmaster of the Christian School of Grace Baptist Church in Carlisle during the years 1977 through 1984, and then became the first coordinator of Reformed Baptist Mission Services. He has taught Arabic to both non-literate Arabic-speaking people, as well as to expatriate medical workers in the Middle East, and recently retired from teaching Arabic in Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.